A Tale for Dark Days: “everything will be alright”

One day, many years ago when I worked as a freelance designer, I found myself in a familiar place of having no work and as a result worrying about the future. That week a number of creative projects had fallen through and there didn’t seem to be much work on the horizon. As the weeks ticked by and money was quickly running out I was getting increasingly anxious. 

Being freelance, I’d been through this situation many times before. So you’d think, by now, I’d be familiar enough with the scene and therefore more relaxed about it, right? Alas not, and despite many years of psychological exploration and meditation practice I would find myself back in this same place of dread and worry. It repeatedly felt as if all the tools, techniques and wisdom I’d learned over the years just flew out the window and were forgotten. Each time I’d turn my life into one huge internal drama with fantasies about never working again, running out of money and losing everything including my mental health. It was an unreal horror story but felt as if I just couldn’t help but torture myself in this way.

However, on this particular day I’m describing, something drove me to sit down and attempt to meditate. All morning I’d been fretting about not being able to cope and as a result the stress upon stress had been rapidly escalating. But even as I sat down and closed my eyes they would fly open again, my mind racing and I’d be on the verge of getting up and ploughing on with frantic emails in a desperate bid to drum up some work. 

After this happening a couple of times I suddenly heard a voice inside myself say, “BE STILL”. It was so powerful and distinct that I immediately complied and a sudden calmness descended through which I was able to quieten my mind for the next hour or so. During that time, as I sat on the floor with eyes calmly closed, I heard the mail being believed but felt no pressing urge to retrieve it.

Eventually I got to my feet, now feeling settled and clear, and collected the post, which included a small brown envelope with my address in a handwritten scrawl. Inside was a plain white postcard with nothing on it. However, on closer inspection I noticed, embossed within the centre of the card, the words “everything will be alright”. There was no other information and no return address. I was astounded and the card, along with the internal instruction, stayed with me for days and facilitated in me a deep steadiness. 
Within a week or two I had more design work and, as per usual, the stress of the previous weeks had vanished. 

It later transpired that a close friend of mine, who was also a freelance designer, had been doing a print making workshop the weekend before my stressful episode and, having made several embossed cards like this, she sent them out to a number of friends.

Irrespective of the reasons, I felt as if the universe had, internally and through the actions of my friend, reached out to me. It was as if it had put its hand on my shoulder to calm me down. Synchronistically it was exactly what I needed at exactly the right time. I am, by nature, very curious and open-minded about the mysteries of the world and how we influence our lived experience, consciously or unconsciously. Had I not I may have discarded the experience as mere fluke. 

So is there an explanation for this coincidence? The truth is I don’t know and, for me, it doesn’t really matter. What’s most important is that, firstly, I paid attention and secondly, that it really helped to ease my fears. To say I know and can rationalise what happened removes the magic and awe of the experience 

Since that day I’ve remained self-employed and whilst, in the meantime, I’ve changed career I’ve still found myself in that space between work and projects. Sometimes similar fears and agitations have come up but never as acute. During those moments I’ve kept my eyes and ears open for similar signs, but non have materialised. It’s as if that previous experience, as marked as it was, etched itself into my life. I’m taken back to that memory every time panic and stress threatens to overwhelm me and when life suddenly seems uncertain.

The collection of words that form “everything will be alright” is potentially the most powerfully reassuring sentence we can hear when spoken by someone we trust during times of fear or sadness. So for me, It’s interesting to consider that those same loving and supportive words may also be available to me at all times and in unexpected forms. I don’t need to buy into any defined mysticism or beliefs it’s just a simple case being open to it and then if I choose to pay attention.

As to whether I’m able to believe and fully trust in it – now that’s quite another story.

For other articles, posts and ways in which to support yourself during difficult time check out –psychotherapy4london.co.uk

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The Fear of Fear: 3 tips on how to calm the dread

When thinking about an upcoming situation or event many say that what scares them most is the anticipation of fear more than the fear itself.


So what’s the difference? Essentially one is a fantasy about something that is in the future and yet to happen whilst the other is a sensory reaction to something that is happening here and now. Both, one could argue, are as a result of negative mental content about the self – “I can’t cope”, “I’m not good enough” or “I can’t handle failure or rejection”. Whether it’s a fantasy about the future or a difficulty happening right now the same stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, are released into the body as the mind signals danger and prepares the body for fight or flight. Being on full alert like this can lead to sleepless nights, panic attacks and general exhaustion.

The anticipation of future fear engenders feelings that can best be described as ‘dread’. Here, it’s the fantasy of the awful feelings that accompany the situation that crowd into ones mind. One feels powerless to stop them. This might include projecting into the future and imagining the worst case scenarios or replaying past situations over and over and from different perspectives as if to figure them out. The problem is that the past and the future don’t actually exist, other than in the mind, memory and imagination. So all that happens is that we get lost in an illusion but with all the real feelings of fear.

With all this mental time travelling the mind is stretched between two imaginary worlds, which drains our mental and physical energy and is a sure recipe for stress and worry.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be like this.

Here a few quick ideas for when the fantasy of fear strikes;

1. Unplug from the future and the past. Bring yourself into the present moment. The here and now is the only true place and time that actually exists and the only reality that really needs your full attention. Therefore the first thing to do is just notice – “Ah yes my mind is now in the future or the past”. Next, come back to the present by focusing on your breathing, your body sensations or something in front of you within the physical environment. This might simply be the ground under your feet or an external three-dimensional object. Then see how long you can remain present with this before your mind takes you off again, which it will. This is the nature of mind and so you’ve got an ongoing fight on your hands, as we all have. It’s a life-long practice. Learning the art of meditation is a great way to train yourself in how to tame the mind. If all fails app games on your smartphone are a good way of distracting your mind for some time during intense periods of stress.

2. Welcome the fear. For many people this is a bit of a stretch and you might yell, “What??!!! No way, I want it gone!!” This is understandable, but given that fear and anxiety does happen and is an unavoidable human condition you might like to entertain the notion of accepting the reality and working with it. Here, you can put worrying about the future on hold and just wait for it to happen. This does not mean discontinuing to work on what is causing the fear and acquiring tools to further support yourself. It means that you learn to expect fear and then attempt to live alongside it. As such, you’ll realise that it is possible to coexist alongside fear and that fear and non-fear can happen simultaneously. An example of this might be a presentation at work – your heart might be pounding, you might be shaking and sweating, you may be going red, your voice and breathing might be restricted. Whilst this is happening your ego will be labelling these experiences as ‘bad’ and ‘wrong’. Your ego’s nature is to seek and cling onto perfectionism, certainty and safety. Meanwhile, another part of you is getting on with delivering the presentation. This is fear and non-fear coexisting. By giving space to your fear in this way you ‘let it be’ and as result you may have space in which to generate some compassion and kindness for that scared part of ourselves, which is like a frightened child. How would you speak to a frightened child?

3. Step out of thinking. This is what meditation masters over thousands of years have strove to achieve. As such it’s much easier said than done. However, there is great power and simplicity in understanding that you don’t actually HAVE to think all the time. At our current stage in human evolution we have all conditioned ourselves to be driven by our thoughts. The truth is that thinking is a wonderful gift that helps us solve problems and create the world around us. Conversely, the curse of thinking is that we often create problems within our selves. The philosopher Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am”, which perfectly encapsulates how we currently and firmly identify with our thoughts – THINKING IS US. However, if we turn that around, “I am, therefore I think”, thinking becomes a part of our human experience rather than the totality of it. Thinking is just one of our six-sense faculties, which we have learned to over use and over identify with. So when you’re next lost in your fantasies (thoughts) about the future it’s helpful to know that, firstly, this is just your thinking faculty that is running the show. Secondly, you don’t HAVE to think. You can step out of the flow of thinking, as if it’s a fast flowing river, onto the river bank and rather than be swept away by it watch it flow past. Most of the time you feel you have no choice in whether to think or not. Generally we all have very busy minds. However, taming your minds is no easy task and takes time, perseverance and patience but is absolutely achievable. The important thing to become aware of is that you are in charge, not your thoughts. Thoughts are your workforce whilst you are the CEO.

I hope these quick ideas will be helpful whenever you next find yourself feeling overwhelmed by thoughts of the future. For further information about how to further deal with fear and anxiety please check out my other website –

www.psychotherapy4london.co.uk

Self-Doubt – Part 2

A Cultural Norm?

Before I began researching self-doubt I’d often heard it referred to as useful or important and that without it one might become arrogant. This often struck me as being at odds with the harsh, critical and self-limiting reality of self-doubt. If the opposite of self-doubt were arrogance no wonder it seemed to be such a widely accepted norm.

However, what if true self confidence has nothing to do with being an extrovert, demonstrative or even successful. What if it has everything to do with simply trusting oneself? As such the opposite of self-doubt is not arrogance or an inflated sense of confidence but actually trust and self belief.

When I trust in myself the world around me feels like a safer place to be, my faith in others is stronger and I’m more resilient to deal with life’s challenges. When I don’t have belief or faith in myself I’m faced with self-doubt wherever I go. The world is full of uncertainty and I feel both vulnerable and a victim to a world where others have all the power, success and happiness.

Internal querying of ourselves and the world is a natural and normal mechanism, which can also be regarded as our moral compass that assesses what the right thing to do or say is. Self-doubt is part of this mechanism but it turns the querying into criticism. Because of the important moral aspect it is no wonder we confuse critical self-doubt with being so important. However it is self-regulation that is important. Self-regulation is the internal assessment process that supports our journey through our lives.

In my next blog I outline the two aspects of self-doubt and self-regulation the purpose of which is to provide a simple tool for empowering ourselves and navigating beyond the self-limitation. I argue that self-regulation is the important device that assesses what is right for me as well as the world around me whilst self-doubt is a defensive position that keeps me limited and withdrawn from my life.

Understanding self-doubt as a cultural norm means we can step beyond it and make different choices. As such we can shift our attention away from unhelpful internal dialogues and towards that which helps us grow and live more fulfilling lives.

Self-Doubt – Part 1

‘My encounter’

Some time ago I decided to embark on a research MA in psychotherapy. Prior to commencing I had spent a couple of years researching my chosen topic. As a result I felt quite confident and prepared as I approached the initial stages of the programme. However, as I proceeded I was soon faced with familiar feelings of withdrawal that I recognised as self-doubt. Suddenly my chosen subject, my abilities and capacities were all brought into question. This habitual encounter with self-doubt, I realised, would often result in me abandoning similar endeavours. From here I became aware of numerous projects deserted and strewn throughout my past. I also now understood how my ongoing encounter with self-doubt continually directed me away from my true nature and, as such, authentic expressions of myself. The sort of internal dialogues around self-doubt that I found myself grappling with included – I’m not good enough – I can’t do this – I’m going to fail – I need to be perfect – there’s something wrong with me  – who do I think I am?- and so on. Self-doubt seemed only to serve to keep me small and as such my life limited. The question that now rose was – why?

As I next considered how to proceed, and with the prospect of two years of research ahead of me, I wondered why I hadn’t chosen self-doubt as my research topic as it was rich data that I had immediate access to. With that thought I was suddenly alive with inspiration and it was as if my new topic had chosen me and it now felt unavoidable. Until I turned to face self-doubt and made this my focus I knew I would continue to struggle with it as a limitation.

Therefore, my initial proposal was replaced by the topic of self-doubt. From now on any doubt or uncertainties would become part of the research and the heart of the investigation. Other areas of interest went on hold until I uncovered the nature of self-doubt and understood its origins. I decided to put myself at the centre of the research and used active imagination through which to explore the subject. This took the form of meditations, visualisations, journalling and dream analysis from which I designed a workshop where I would compare my findings with that of others who also encountered self-doubt as a limitation within their lives.

The question that took me into the research became – what is the nature of self-doubt and how can active imagination enable both understanding and transformation? As I progressed over the next two years it became clear that very little has been written on the subject despite many of us struggling with self-doubt. People around me as well as clients I worked with often construed it as being their greatest difficulty. Whenever I asked clients to rate their experiences of depression, anxiety, anger, fear etc, self-doubt was often the one they identified immediately and rated the most prominent. Like me, it seemed to stand in the way of whatever they wished to do, say or be.

The following series of blogs entitled Self-Doubt – Parts 1-5′ chart my experiences and findings from the two year research period. Please feel free to contribute your thoughts, opinions and experiences.

New Year’s Eve Anxiety : Endings and Beginnings

photoIt’s December 31st 2013 and tomorrow it’ll be 2014. Whilst one year ends the next one begins and this is a pivotal time for reflection, looking back and for contemplating the future. This time of year can also bring with it a great deal of anxiety – from the pressure of having to have fun and being part of a group as we see in the New Year in to dealing with the aftermath of Christmas and the dread of returning to studies or work.

Questions might arise such as; What am I doing with my life? Where are things going? What have I achieved? What should I be doing? These are all queries that put enormous pressure on us to do or be something other than we already are. Then, of course, when this time of year roles around again and we haven’t transformed our lives as we promised ourselves earlier in the year we focus on what we haven’t yet done rather that what we have done and so the cycle starts over again.

In our culture we have leaned to judge the end of things as often negative but, whilst endings can bring with them a natural degree of sadness and worry, we forget to allow room for the other side of the coin, namely beginnings. If we are mourning the loss of a loved one it is only natural that we allow ourselves time to grieve and mourn their absence. Other endings such as loosing a job or the end of a relationship can, similarly, take us into a place of despair and hopelessness. We dwell on the feelings of rejection or loneliness, which means our recovery takes longer or our confidence is knocked entirely.

Instead, we could to allow both truths to co-exist understanding that, whilst something ends something else begins. This is the law of change that exists throughout the entire universe. Incorporating this universal truth into our lives means allowing ourselves to fully experience whatever the end of something brings up for us. At the same time we can turn towards the other reality where a new beginning is already taking place. In doing this we don’t allow ourselves to deny our wounded feelings nor do we completely lose ourselves within our challenging emotions. Instead, we allow both to run side by side until we are ready to let go of the ending process and embrace the possibilities that the beginnings also offers us. In doing this we enable hope and optimism.

So whether you’re coming to the end of a project, a relationship, a job or simply contemplating the end of the year spend some time also allowing space for beginnings by asking yourself – what is beginning right now, who am I from this moment on? If you find your mind travelling into the future and dwelling in fear gently bring it back to the present moment.

“When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.” Alexander Graham Bell

5 Christmas tips for Social Anxiety

For those with social anxiety this time of year can bring added levels of stress and worry. From the office parties to the family get-together, anxiety levels are usually very high.

Self-consciousness, shyness and embarrassment are the common experiences of social anxiety. It also brings with it feelings of shame and much of the added stress comes from concealing this from others in order to fit in.

One of the great fears for someone with social anxiety is being put in the spotlight. Therefore sitting around a table in a confined space can be the source of huge stress.  I remember dreading dinner parties and eventually avoided them at all cost.

Another challenging component to social anxiety is the after effect of a social occasion. As someone who has struggled with this type of anxiety in the past I recall how I would obsess about what was said, how I came across and then beat myself up for not being good enough. If it had been a dinner party I’d tell myself that I wasn’t interesting enough and, of course, expect never to be invited again.  These days I’m much more relaxed about situations like these and not so bothered about how I come cross. Over the years I’ve learned to be kind to myself, manage my fears better, to show interest in others and to know that I am welcome.

On the back of my personal experience and my work with clients who struggle with social anxiety here are my 5 tips for surviving the various Christmas events;

  1. Know that you are welcome. Keep telling yourself this even if you don’t believe it. Understand that you are wanted and accepted. It’s sometimes enough for you to just be there and be yourself as much as you can.
  2. Understand that others are also afraid. It always appears that other people are relaxed and confident. Some are but most aren’t. Most people want to be liked and are fearful of rejection.
  3. Know that whatever you feel is a choice. If you don’t feel like joining in – smilingly decline. Stay interested in what is happening around you and allow yourself to say no if you’re really not ready. Saying no doesn’t have to be unfriendly or negative.
  4. Fake it ’till you make it. This sound like a dreadful idea but can be very effective. Imagine yourself however you’d like to be then take on that role. It can allow you to step beyond your comfort zone and discover new ways of being.
  5. Show interest in others. This is a great way to engage with others and make a good impression. Unless they also have social anxiety many people love being given attention, to have that space and to talk about what interests them. If you repeat back what you’ve heard in order to clarify this is even better as there is nothing better than truly being heard and understood.

Overcoming social anxiety can take time but it is possible as I have experienced. The key ingredients for me were; getting interested and curious about my fears instead of running away or covering up, being kind to myself and understanding where these fears come from, allowing others to be confident and relaxed without comparing myself, knowing that I’m welcome, valued and finding ways to move beyond all the self-doubt to know there is nothing wrong with me even if I do feel anxious.

For more information on social anxiety and weekly groups running in London check out – http://www.sashgroup.org

Loneliness Vs Solitude

It’s December 23rd and it’s the time of year when getting together with friends and family or perhaps cosy-ing up with a loved one is what many of us will be planning to do. It’s a wonderful time of year but also comes with a pressure and strain that can lead to that tinseled dream turning into an icy nightmare.

After many years of trying various tactics that have included both avoidance and throwing myself into it completely, I finally feel at peace with Christmas. I can now let it all happen around me without judgement or anxiety. However, in all my experiments I have found that I most enjoy Christmas when I spend it alone. In this space I can enjoy the indulgence of it, generally relax and take it all at my own pace.

Being alone can be a difficult space to inhabit in which a sense of deep unease and restlessness arises as we search for ways to fill that space with distractions such as – hours of watching television, emailing and texting or drinking and eating much more than we would do normally. We want to feel busy and connected and when alone with ourselves we can experience a profound boredom and loneliness.

For this reason being alone doesn’t come easily to many of us. For natural introverts it may be second nature while for other it takes practice and a little more effort. Part of the problem is that being alone is regarded, by our society, as something to move away from and generally encourages us to move more towards socialising and activities. Yet if more of us learned the art of solitude rather than the perceived sadness of loneliness there would be less of an ‘either / or’ situation and being alone could be regarded as an empowered personal choice.

Solitude is different from loneliness. Solitude is a choice in which to be fully present with our selves, whether that is in activity or inactivity and stillness. Loneliness, on the other hand, is an internal state of need in which we yearn for connection with someone or something outside of ourselves. This state is not a bad thing unless we turn it into something desperate and grasping. Rather, loneliness can direct us towards the needs within our heart and from there we can calmly align ourselves with what our hearts yearn for.

Meanwhile, solitude invites us to accept our aloneness completely, get still and enjoy the peace that is there inside ourselves beyond all the noise, stresses and distractions. Here we can re-charge and then, when we’re ready, move out into the world. We now feel more ourselves and more able to connect with our world in a genuine, authentic and fully alive way that is good for us and good for others. All we need do is give ourselves wholehearted permission.

The everyday art of Meditation

For the past twenty one years I’ve practiced Vipassana meditation. There are many other forms of meditation out there many of which I’ve explored, however I keep coming back to Vipassana as I find it works at a much deeper level than any others I’ve experienced.

For me, meditation has helped me understand the nature of my busy mind and to bring myself more into the present moment. It has also enabled a better connection to my body and before I discovered meditation I was often stressed, angry and lost in my thoughts. All of this was what was perfectly normal to me and it had never occurred to me that perhaps I had a choice in what I did with my thoughts or how I reacted. Instead I was a slave to my reactive mind and body and a prisoner of my thoughts. Fantasising and worrying about the future or dwelling in past were states I was very familiar with and alcohol or other distractions being ways I coped with difficult feelings such as anxiety or depression.

Twenty one years ago I was coming to the end of a three month student exchange at a design college in Melbourne, Australia. My plan was to travel around the country before heading back to Manchester in the UK where I was in the middle of a three year design degree. Before leaving a friend, with whom I’d been to see the Dalai Lama give a talk at the Rod Lever arena in Melbourne, suggested doing a ten day meditation retreat outside Sydney in the Blue mountains. She explained that there was no charge and payments were based on donation. She also talked about the wonderful location and the great vegetarian food but beyond that she said very little. As a student with not much money the suggestion instantly appealed. I called the centre and miraculously they had space on the next course so all was set. Doing something alternative, becoming a beacon of calm and tranquility along with attaining the ability to sit in some sort of lotus-type position, I have to admit, where the only thoughts and expectations floating around in my twenty four year old mind.

Setting off from Melbourne I spent a few days exploring Sydney before heading up to the Blue mountains and the small town of Blackheath, which was a quiet contrast to the energy of Sydney. It was early June and so the beginning of winter. At the station I was met by a man in a truck and he drove me and a couple of other prospective meditators up to the centre. I remember that he parked at the end of a driveway and a we walked the rest of the way as snow fluttered in an icy breeze. Winter was not something I’d associated with Australia and so by this stage in the year I was ill equipped but thankfully had remembered to buy a jumper and a beanie hat in Sydney beforehand.

The centre consisted of a series of timber structures nestled amongst eucalyptus trees with landscaped gardens and carp ponds all on an escarpment over looking the Blue mountains and the valleys below. On first sight it was exactly what I’d expected of a meditation centre; peace, tranquility and beauty. This was going to be a great story to add to my experience down under and share my friends and family back in the UK.

After registering I was allotted a room but discovered that I would to be sharing with 5 other men and I would have to clamber up onto a bunk bed. This was the first blow to my idyllic fantasy. Back in the dinning room all 50 or so people who were taking part gathered and waited for the course to begin. Soup was served and we chatted in between uncomfortable silences. It was now dark outside and as the hours ticked by my impatience and uncertainty mounted. Thoughts such as “What the hell am I doing here?” and “This isn’t for me – I’m going to end up in some cult and so better make a run for it whilst I still can” played around in my head. However, before I could do anything about it the course manager came in with a series of announcements and introductions, explained the rules and pointing out various practicalities. The course was due to start at 8pm and he would bang a gong at which point we would enter ‘noble’ silence. By this stage I was feeling very nervous.

Some time after 8pm we were taken into the meditation hall and allotted large square cushions that would serve as our seating position for the duration. Men and women were kept apart with separate sleeping quarters, dining rooms and in the meditation hall men sat on the left and women on the right. As I adopted the Buddha-like position I watched, through squinting eyes, to see what others were doing. Was I doing it right? Suddenly someone, who I thought must be the teacher, entered and serenely positioned himself on an cushion facing us. I straightened my back. Through the ensuing silence and my half closed eyes I could see him fumbling with a tape which he clattered into a machine and pressed play. As he straightened himself I quickly closed my eyes lest he spot my fake buddha-hood and eject me from the course. From the speakers deep guttural chanting that sounded more like groaning filled the room as my mind filled with the idea of a goat being dragged in and slaughtered any minute. This was a weird cult after all but there’s no turning back now I thought. Never mind – what a story! Eventually the voice of the taped teacher, a man called Goenka, spoke, “You have all assembled here to proceed on the noble path of wisdom.” Enter goat! He went on to take the group through five precepts which included; no stealing, no lying, no killing, no taking intoxicants and no sexual misconduct. We all repeated the promise not to do any of these things for the duration of the course and were instructed to ask the teacher for guidance which also repeated in unison, sort of.

A tape recording? I couldn’t quite get my head around it. Perhaps this was just the beginning and the actual person sitting in front of us would impart some instructions tomorrow. At 9pm the introduction was over and we went off to bed in silence to be woken early the next morning.

When the gong went at 4am I was keen to hear the ‘real’ instructions on how to do meditation so quickly got ready in the chilled darkness and eagerly positioned myself in the hall. It was still dark and bitterly cold which added a cosiness to the meditation hall. A silent landscape of blanketed adults began to take shape like soft rocks, which struck me a quite beautiful. At 5.15am the teacher appeared, positioned himself as before followed by the clatter of tapes once again and Goenka’s chanting. Once that had finished Goenka instructed us to observe our breath as it enters our nostrils and as it exits. That was it.

Bewildered, I headed to the dining room for breakfast at 6.30. As we silently ate our breakfast I was wowed by the view from the dining hall. The moon, huge and peach-like, appeared to be setting over a lake of cloud down in the valleys below. It was a striking backdrop to my confusion.

Returning to the meditation hall later the same procedure ensued and then continued for the next 4 days. Observing the breathe as it comes in as it goes out. I couldn’t believe how easy it was yet unbelievably difficult with often 20 minutes passing before I realised I was lost in my thoughts and had forgotten all about my breath. On day four the focus of attention changed. Starting from the top of our heads and slowly moving down to our toes noting all the sensations then back up again. For someone like me who regarded my body as just something that held my head up this was uncharted territory.

By the end of the course any expectations I might have had were obliterated. Becoming all buddha-like was irrelevant and tranquility and peace were bi-products but far from the actual experience of the course.

In fact, by the end of the course everything seemed to have changed. The icy snow flurries had vanished and although we were now further into winter there was a distinct feeling of spring in the air. Flowers seemed to be blooming, the sun shone and animals came into clearings as if out of a scene form Snow White. After 10 days of silence talking was a shock and at the same time a verbal flood ensued as everyone who had taken part for the first time couldn’t wait to share their experiences. Meantime, those who had come back for a second or third time, avoided the chattering masses. At the time I couldn’t understand their need for continued seclusion let alone the fact that anyone would come back to go through the ordeal again, it was mind boggling to me.

Looking back I now understand both. The budding nature of spring that I was experiencing outside was actually inside me as something opened, shifted and was in the process of a major transformation.

21 years on I’ve now completed many 10 day retreats with each experience different from the last despite the instructions and the structure of the course being exactly the same as that first one back in Australia. I continue to get benefits from both the daily practice as well as the occasional experience of spending time in silence. I find that through the silence and the intensity of the extended periods of sitting I get insight and clarity into what direction I want my life to go. Any confusions and internal conflicts seem to get ironed out and I often emerge feeling clearer and refreshed. At other times it’s hell from start to finish but I’ve come to know that this is just as ok as the clarity and openness. It’s the nature of change.

Stepping back into the outside world can be a bit of a shock but on the course silence is lifted on the final day providing the opportunity to re-acquaint ourselves with our vocal chords. Talking acts as a shock absorber before leaving and re-entering the outside world the following day.

Back in the busy world I recently, watched a documentary film on the artist Marina Abramovic who is famed for her physical installations that explore the relationship between pain, relationships and the body. The film charts her creative life but focuses on a recent retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Central to the show was her most recent piece entitled ‘The Artist is Present’, which was also the title of both the exhibition and the film. Within the piece Marina sits on a chair as visitors queue to sit opposite her. During that time they look at each other in silence for however long the visitor wishes. The show lasted for four months and Marina sat all day for the duration of the exhibition. Marina later described how she’d encountered a broad spectrum of emotions in the faces of her visitors that ranged from anger to sadness and love. She also described the pain of sitting for such long periods and how she’d have to look out beyond her suffering to connect with the other.

I found this film hugely inspiring and whilst it was an expression of the artist’s creative ego it also represented some of the challenges of meditating for long periods of time and the range of experiences that can be encountered during that time from bliss to boredom and depression. In ‘The Artist is Present’ Marina Abramovic turned sitting and observing into an art form. Similarly, I find that meditation provides a space in which creativity takes place and from which inspiration and insights emerge. One of the main aims of meditation is to become present. Marina’s presence beyond the suffering enabled connection with another human being. In meditation we seek connection with ourselves, our truths and the reality of each arising moment within the framework of our minds and bodies. From here, we can move out into the world bringing our presence and inspiration with us in order to be in better relationship, not only with ourselves but also, with everything around us. http://www.dhamma.org

Insomnia – ‘A rude awakening’

It’s 10 o’clock in the evening you’re tired and having not slept much the night before you’re convinced that you’re going to sleep like a log. You climb into bed but you’re too tired to read so you turn out the light. As you wait for sleep to come and carry you off into oblivion the realisation that it’s not happening slowly dawns and after changing position a few time you’re suddenly wide awake. This can’t be happening – how is it possible?

The following day is a mess. A constant sense of disconnection and tension runs throughout the body combining with total exhaustion to generate feelings of irritation, anxiety and depression. Your mind feels scattered and it takes all your energy to focus on the simplest of tasks. By lunch time you’re at your wits end. It seems that everyone else is full of energy but by late afternoon you’ve found some inner resource and you make it to the end of the day. To your horror the same thing happens again that night and then again, and then again. Eventually you’re convinced you’re losing your mind, that you’re ageing prematurely and the tiredness you feel inside is there on your face for all to see.

In the early hours of the morning when everything and everyone seems to be asleep. Everything that is except you. You believe you’re the only one in the universe unable to sleep and this is a desperately lonely experience. In fact feeling alone is probably the pre-dominant feeling when living with insomnia. If you have a partner chances are they sleep like a baby and this, of course, further amplifies your torment.

At some point you decide to take action and frantic trips to the doctors soon arm you with various pills beginning with ‘Z’ or ‘X’ but you find they make little difference and leave you with side effects that leave you feeling edgy and polluted.

By now everything feels polluted and increasingly stressful. Your work, your family, your relationships. You keep on going through sheer determination but because it doesn’t appear to be an illness and you have no visible injuries you don’t feel you can complain and that keeping it to yourself is the best option. Besides who would understand?

Next stop is the herbalist, followed by acupuncture, massage and hypnotherapy. Each work initially but eventually you’re back to square one. As you hop from therapist to therapist a well-meaning friend suggests it might be best to stick to one treatment at which point you explode and they experience the full brunt of your frustrations.

To the background of whale song and the scent of lavender you desperately search for that hidden pathway into the lost kingdom of sleep. Wearily you leaf, dry and swollen eyed, through the various leaflets you’ve gathered offering numerous techniques that promise to help with insomnia, all of which you’ve yet to try. Money is running low so you need to tread cautiously.

One of these leaflets came through your door years ago and has been en-route to the recycling ever since but some how it managed to avoid the pulping machines and as such has made its way from pile to pile. Smoothing out the crumpled and stained paper you read about an ‘Opening the heart’ workshop held at a local Buddhist centre. Whilst the workshop has long since passed you feel drawn to the theme, particularly since insomnia has left your heart feeling like a bedraggled and frightened bird. You find yourself googling the centre and discover they have ongoing workshops around similar topics at reasonable costs. Something inside stirs and gingerly flutters its tired wings.

Something about the language used in the books you subsequently buy on Amazon tunes you into a different attitude to the lack of sleep you so desperately crave. Now, instead of tossing and turning in the anguished hope that sleep is just around the corner, you break the rhythm of despair with stillness. Just stillness. In the darkness you observe your breath as it enters your body and as it exits. You observe your body as it lies there. You observe the darkness and you notice the thoughts ‘I want to sleep!!’ and then let it go. However, shortly after that you chase after it, grab hold of it and lose yourself in the restless war on sleeplessness. More and more, though, you’re able to come back to detaching from the frustrations and the pain of ‘no sleep’.

Slowly you wake up to the understanding that you are not insomnia. Insomnia is painful and you are not this pain. You become more interested in the Buddhist notion that the purpose of life is to wake up, to become conscious. After another slumber-less night you reason, “If this is the purpose of life you can forget it!!” But eventually you learn to be kinder to your tired body and your weary mind. You notice your clawing mind desperate for sleep and you begin to forgive your unsleepable-self. Sometimes this illuminates the way back to the mysterious kingdom of sleep even only for a brief visit.

It’s an odd parable but could it be that through the terrible and debilitating experience of insomnia we could actually learn how to wake up?

Hyperhidrosis #2 – ‘It’s a cruel cruel summer!’

For those who have Hyperhidrosis summer here in London can be a nightmare. Especially if you’re commuting to and from work. Whilst air conditioning is increasingly being installed in offices, buses, shops and on the underground trains such as the district line, sweat soaked clothes before 9 in the morning is an all too familiar experience.

For most of the population sweating in the heat is a normal occurrence which, whilst uncomfortable, soon passes. However, for someone with hyperhydrosis, where the sweat glands and sympathetic nervous system are over active, excessive sweating is often an ever present discomfort.

The other day I jumped on one of the new route master buses which are based on an older style of hop on hop off bus, which were replaced several years ago. A tragedy in my opinion as they were great fun to travel on, employed a conductor and were well ventilated. The new designs by Thomas Heatherwick are a futuristic version but have no windows that can open, the idea being that temperature can be controlled internally. This is a huge oversight in the design as even in the coldest winter fresh air is a must. The day I hopped on the air conditioning on all buses had failed. Whilst it was 25 degrees outside it was more like 40 inside. Needless to say I hopped off at the next stop.

Similarly, whilst shopping for suitable summer clothes I went into a big brand store on Oxford street. To my horror the air conditioning had failed and whilst the staff ran around frantically setting up huge cooling machines machines, which did little other than blow the hot air around, I lasted about 2 minutes before heading for another store where the air conditioning was guaranteed to be in full swing. These days, has air conditioning turned us all into hypersensitive creatures of comfort?

Recently I spent some time in Malaysia where the temperature is consistently between 30 and 40 degrees centigrade with the humidity at around 90%. There, being too hot and sweating is something everyone experiences throughout the year. Some love the heat and the humidity whilst others struggle and these days, throughout Malaysia, it’s unusual to find a cafe, restaurant, shop or taxi that doesn’t have air conditioning. That’s great news for comfort but not such good news for the environment. As offices, homes and shops etc pump the hot air back outside conversely the outside heats up creating a vicious cycle. On top of that there’s the growing need for more power and energy – as we cool our interiors the exterior gets hotter. This reminds me of the smoking ban which improved the experience for non-smokers in bars, clubs and restaurants but step outside for some fresh air and you’re likely to get a lung-full of smoke as smokers are relegated to the ‘fresh air’.

Whilst summer in London can be a challenge for those with hyperhidrosis winter can also present another series of problems. This can include going from the cold outside into hot and over-heated spaces which may encourage the body to sweat and then back out into the cold again.

I remember the first time I went skiing. For those who have had the experience you’ll know how much energy is used when learning to do it. Falling down and getting back up produces a lot of body heat and being outside for most of the day I’d sweat and then I’d stop for lunch where I’d soon become cold and wet. Eventually I learned to take a change of clothes but those initial days of getting hot then cold then hot then cold resulted in me flying home with a nasty dose of flu. Being cold and wet for long periods can deplete the body’s immune system however there is one person who has developed a system for dealing with such conditions.

Wim Hof is known as the ‘Ice man’ and has swum under icebergs, run a marathon north of the polar circle wearing nothing but shorts and publicly demonstrated how he can spend hours submersed in ice. He has learnt to control his hypothalamus which governs the body temperature and claims that learning how to do this can strengthen the immune system and fight disease. He runs workshops in holland and the US and believes that anyone can learn to do it. His website is http://www.innerfire.nl and I’ve found some of his techniques very useful particularly if you experience sweating during the night which may also disturb your sleep.

Sitting on public transport and hurtling or sometimes crawling across the city can be a stressful experience in itself. This is often amplified by excessive sweating. I’ve found it very useful at times like this to meditate on the feeling of coldness on the skin. This is a memory we can all recall from being out in the snow, handling ice cubes or getting into a cold swimming pool. This accessible memory is like turning on the internal air conditioning and is just another tool to help us live with hyperhidrosis.

(It’s a cruel cruel summer!) c/o Bananarama 1983